A Conference on Theology
By Ron and Judy Snoek and Paul and Sally Davey
In April this year, the four of us went together to a very interesting conference on Reformed theology, and we thought you might like to hear something about it. It was held at Tenth Presbyterian Church in the centre of the city of Philadelphia, which is a large and old (founded in 1828) congregation, and one which has valued faithful teaching throughout its history. This church was where Sally was a member during her time of study in the city (1979-82).
The Philadelphia Conference on Reformation Theology was begun twenty-eight years ago as the brainchild of James Montgomery Boice, who served as minister of the church for thirty-two years until his death last year. It was Dr Boice's idea to provide an opportunity for men and women hungry to know more about God's Word to hear good addresses on important aspects of theology. It was, in other words, to be a conference that made sound theology real, alive and powerfully helpful in the lives of ordinary people. And it has succeeded in this task. Every year since it began, this conference has been held both at Tenth Church, and more recently at venues in the West and Mid-West of the United States as well. People from all sorts of church backgrounds (including charismatic and liberal) and many different walks of life have been strengthened in their faith and their knowledge of the Scriptures. They have gone on to read widely and appreciate the Reformed faith.
The Mercy of God in our Salvation
This year, the theme of the Conference was “Kyrie Eleison: Lord, Have Mercy” - or, the mercy of God in our salvation. The speakers included two ministers from Tenth Presbyterian (Dr Philip Ryken—son of Leland Ryken, who writes on the Puritans—and Rev. Richard Phillips), and the well-known Dr R.C. Sproul. Rev. Eric Alexander, a retired minister from Scotland, also spoke twice (he was the minister of the church where Dr Sinclair Ferguson now serves). The last, and most frequent, speaker was Dr Ligon Duncan, who is minister of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi, and adjunct professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, also in Jackson.
The day before the Conference proper begins, it is a PCRT tradition to hold a “Pre-Conference Conference”, largely aimed at office-bearers, and dealing with some aspect of church affairs in which ministers and ruling elders would value instruction. This year, Ligon Duncan spoke the whole day on covenant theology. He set it in the context of church history, explained its current neglect, and commented helpfully on its pastoral use and misuse. Duncan is a scholarly man with pastoral concerns at the forefront of his teaching; and, quite simply, it was excellent stuff! He communicated clearly and well, and with passion. One thing we appreciated about Dr Duncan, as with all the conference speakers, was that he was more than willing to talk with anyone who wanted to ask him questions after the sessions. They were definitely accessible; though with 1200 people registered, one could not be too much of a time hog!
The Whole Gospel of God
Covenantal theology doesn't just mean Christian schools, catechism classes, or having large families! It is, instead, a reminder to view all things through the completeness of Scripture (Can we really attempt to condense a day's teaching into one sentence?). A Baptist pastor said, “It's just the whole Gospel of God”. A lovely example of this came in one of Dr. Duncan's applications.
He related the old answer to the question, “What would happen to you if you were to die tonight ?—being, “Oh, I haven't really been that bad— I never killed anyone, or anything like that. I've been basically good. I'm sure that the God of love would accept me”. (I'm sure we've all had that conversation before with an unbelieving friend). What is a covenantal theologian to reply? That if this is the case, then the first covenant, between the Father and Jesus, is made redundant. Christ didn't need to come down to earth and sacrifice Himself in the great humiliation. You are good enough for God on your own, and God made a mistake in sacrificing his son for you. It wasn't necessary!
The Conference proper began on the Friday evening and, as has become traditional for the PCRT, with a worship service. (Actually, the way the sessions are organised, with hymn singing and excellent organ accompaniment, the entire conference resembles a worship service, with the emphasis on preaching). We began with the singing of A Mighty Fortress is Our God; and as this was one of Dr Boice's favourite hymns, there was many a tearful eye as we remembered his contribution to the teaching in this church. It is a splendid experience to sing this hymn along with 1200 hearty singers! R.C. Sproul preached, then we finished the evening with supper, and our first glimpse of a rather sumptuous book table.
The next morning began at 9 am, with Sproul again. He is a very clear and winsome speaker, though we admit something of a rascal: he had Mrs Sproul walk out early to hail a taxi, while he was commenting humorously about her exit - in front of all 1200 present! (How would you enjoy that?) The rest of the morning was taken up with two more addresses on aspects of God's mercy. Philip Ryken spoke movingly on Romans 9:14-24, explaining some of the benefits we enjoy as objects of God's mercy. None of us deserve it; we are as abandoned, unattractive sinners whom God, through His mercy entirely, saves and makes His own beloved. Ligon Duncan then expounded on God's gift of mercy in 1 Peter 1:3-5.
In the afternoon there were 3 seminars to choose from. We chose Ligon Duncan's discussion on “The Openness of God Controversy”, a development in theology which undercuts biblical teaching on God's foreknowledge and predestination. Duncan's seminar contained a careful overview of the attacks made by Clark Pinnock, Greg Boyd, and others on the historic Augustianian/Calvinist view of the sovereignty of God. The “openness of God” movement is “Arminianism with a vengeance,” denying that God can fully know the future, certainly that He determines all of it; and arguing that God not only changes His mind, He responds in reaction to circumstances as they unfold. This movement (in part an attempt to overcome some of the philosophical difficulties faced by traditional Arminianism) is a denial of the heart of biblical teaching on the person of God. It was certainly a most helpful, condensed overview of some of these recent ideas. The second seminar was Philip Ryken's interesting and unusual “Brief Theology of Absolutely Everything”, which was a survey of Thomas Boston's Human Nature in its Fourfold State, with suggested contemporary applications we could make from it. The third was Richard Philips speaking on “True Spirituality in the Knowledge of God”.
The Conference concluded with Sunday morning worship at Tenth Church, which was led by Eric Alexander. Ron and Judy and children attended; Paul and Sally were staying with a PCA minister friend, and were at worship with them.
What were the impressions we left with?
First, that in spite of televangelists there still exists a very large and healthy Reformed community in the US! The speakers—Drs. Duncan and Ryken in particular—were examples of very gifted men who strive to serve God with all their considerable abilities. The example they set is very refreshing and encouraging, especially as we try to offer both truth and hope to those around us in this post-modern society. The evidence gathered in discussions during the coffee breaks shows that there exist here a number of sound seminaries that are turning out men with a firm grounding in Reformed theology. We all believe that the opportunity to study under such eminent men would be a great advantage to those preparing for work in the ministry.
Second, the helpfulness of the speakers: without exception, all the speakers were warm, friendly and approachable. They were ready to speak with anyone —and to answer the simplest of questions from the simplest of people. It was obvious that their aim was to present the solid truths they loved to ordinary men and women—in such a way that these truths would become theirs too! There was not the slightest trace of “professionals speaking primarily to their colleagues.” It was patently obvious they were there to help; and that they expected Christians to be interested in serious investigation of the Scriptures..
Third, the benefit of seeing theologians `in the flesh'. Dr. Duncan will shortly publish a book on the issue of the “Openness of God”, and His omniscience as it applies to our future. What readers of that book (and others) may not be able to see, though, is the love and passion for God that leads and directs these men. It was a very powerful witness to see such zeal for the glory of God. Too often we have seen theology treated as a battleground for certain hobbyhorse issues. Here we saw, instead, the study of God leading to a deeper love of God, which ought to be the case with us, as well.
We would encourage those who are near the East Coast of the U.S. next year to include the PCRT in their travel itinerary - transportation from Connecticut available on request.
And, even if you're not planning to visit the U.S., there will be opportunity here. In October 2002, a series of conferences on Reformation Theology is being planned for New Zealand —similarly helpful, we hope, to the PCRT. When the arrangements are finalised, the word will be out! We highly recommend the spiritual value of such occasions.